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Stress & Fertility - Is there a link?

Chronic stress or short term high stress can have seriously negative effects on fertility. It may not necessarily stop you from conceiving, but it can make it a lot harder. It is something of a catch 22 situation given how stressful it is to have fertility problems

Here is what stress can do to your fertility and why it's so crucial to manage your stress levels when you're trying to get pregnant.

How stress can affect your fertility

Stress is a part of life, it is needed to survive. Our body releases cortisol, which in turn, "dumps" glucose into the bloodstream, to allow our muscles to use it as fuel to get our selves out of danger. While we are in this state of "fight or flight'' other body processes that are not needed immediately slow down, for example,: digesting our lunch, going to the toilet etc. We are designed to cope with short term stressors, then our adrenal hormones go back to their normal levels, allowing our body to continue its other processes such as digestion, reproduction etc.

Chronic stress has a negative impact on our chances to conceive. One study, women who had high alpha-amylase levels (an enzyme that acts as a stress marker) were 12% less likely to get pregnant every month.

How stress affects hormone balance

Getting pregnant needs a certain balance of a number of hormones whose levels change throughout your menstrual cycle.

Most of these hormones are produced in the brain by the pituitary gland. Stress affects this area of the brain, which can have effects on hormones and ovulation. All our hormones are linked so if one is being produced at a higher or lower output, it directly affects all the others.

Cortisol is one of these hormones. It's involved in triggering the fight or flight response and shutting down everything that's not essential for survival - including the reproductive system.

Stress hormones like cortisol can also affect signaling between the brain and the ovaries. This often means that ovulation doesn't happen as regularly and conception is more challenging.

Women who took part in a group mind-body intervention had higher IVF success rates.

Stress and ovulation

Stress may also delay ovulation, which obviously makes it harder to conceive. Ovulation can be affected even if it's imminent. Sometimes, it can be interrupted completely.

You've experienced the impact of stress on ovulation if you've ever missed a period when you're feeling under pressure. If you're on hormonal birth control, the ovulation process is completely confused since you're effectively shutting it down and it can take a while to kick start natural ovulation again when you start trying to get pregnant.

Under normal circumstances, the hypothalamus sends messages to the pituitary gland to release follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). This tells the follicles in the ovaries to develop an egg until it's fully matured.

● At the same time, estrogen levels also rise and boost luteinizing hormone (LH) levels. This encourages the mature egg to leave the ovary and make its way to the fallopian tube.

Stress and the luteal phase

Stress can affect fertility in another way too. It can literally tell your body that it's not a good time to get pregnant by shortening the luteal phase of your menstrual cycle. The luteal phase of your cycle is the one that occurs between ovulation and the start of your period.

This is the time when progesterone production encourages your uterus lining to thicken in case you become pregnant. It can last anything from 11 to 17 days but if it's shorter than 8 days, it's a lot more likely to be a factor in fertility problems.

A shorter luteal phase is an issue when you're trying to conceive as less progesterone is produced and the lining doesn't thicken as much as it should. This makes it more difficult for a fertilised egg to implant itself into your uterus. There is also less time for the egg to travel from the fallopian tube to the uterus before the lining starts to shed again.

Stress is one factor that can lead to a shorter luteal phase but there is some good news. Managing your stress levels can help bring it back into balance.

Does stress affect male fertility?

It’s not just your fertility that can be affected by stress. Your partner’s fertility could be impacted too - especially sperm quality. Poor-quality sperm is one of the biggest causes of male infertility. Stress isn’t always the culprit but it can play a big role, according to some studies.

In one study, stress was found to affect sperm quality. Men who had experienced two or more periods of stress in the previous year had less sperm movement and fewer sperm were of “normal” shape.

Work-related stress didn’t seem to affect sperm quality but it did affect testosterone levels in semen.

Researchers aren’t sure exactly how stress may impact male fertility but they do have some theories.

Stress may trigger the release of glucocorticoids that affect testosterone levels and sperm production. Oxidative stress from free radicals may be another factor.

What's the verdict?

Stress can be a factor for fertility problems and it can disrupt ovulation, encourage hormone imbalance and shorten the time between ovulation and menstruation. It can also affect your partner’s fertility too.

All of this can potentially make it harder to get pregnant but even chronic stress doesn't necessarily mean you'll struggle with your fertility.

That said, keeping your stress levels in check makes it less likely that chronic stress will harm your chances of conceiving.

For tips on how to reduce stress Click here

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